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Why Photography?

We continue working on Uncharted. We appreciate the feedback and support that many of you have given as we continue to develop our online exploration community. We hope you enjoy this slide show by Uncharted’s Alan Murray about how photography can enhance life and help us explore the uncharted.


Getting Ready

new site

By Alan Murray,
Uncharted Staff

Starting a new venture is an amazing experience. It’s exciting, challenging, educational and fun. On occasion it can be discouraging.  Taking an idea and transforming it into reality is a rigorous, but very rewarding undertaking. Sometimes ideas turn into what you least expect. When we founded Uncharted several years ago, we were really just thinking of publishing a magazine for travel and the outdoors focused on the Intermountain West. Back then, we were just a group of colleagues from different areas of the country who shared a passion for exploring our world. There was no Uncharted. It was just an idea without a name. Our search for a name led us through over 40 possible candidates. After many long discussions, Uncharted took its rightful place at the top of the list and a new venture was born.

Through Uncharted’s history, most of us have worked full-time jobs in industries such as journalism, engineering, graphic arts, and the sciences. As we have worked to transform our ideas into reality after work and on the weekends, we’ve seen some great successes and some setbacks. Each experience has helped us learn and grow. Each day, we can see we’ve come closer to reaching our goals.

Since our founding in 2005, we’ve released two or three versions of Uncharted. Each time our idea evolved into something unexpected. Each iteration was successful in its own way and provided valuable learning opportunities that have helped bring Uncharted to where it is today. Our followers have been very supportive. They have stayed with us through each of those iterations, giving us feedback, sharing their adventures, and motivating us to keep moving ahead.

We’re very excited to announce that we are now testing the latest iteration of Uncharted. For the past two weeks, we’ve opened the new site up for a select group of volunteers to try it out and give us feedback. Not only have these volunteers given us a fresh perspective, but they’ve also shared their adventures from around the world. Some of them have been with us since the very first release of Uncharted’s online exploration community back in 2008. In just a few short days we’ve seen experiences from Malaysia, Australia, Ghana, India, Canada, and various parts of the United States, to name a few. We’re extremely grateful for their support and enthusiasm and we’ve already begun to implement some of their suggestions.

We would like to invite you to help us get Uncharted ready for launch. We’re excited to hear your feedback and see what you think of what we’ve come up with so far. Sign up today and our team will get you set up for a behind-the-scenes view.

Alan Murray is a co-founder and the President of Uncharted.  He loves snowshoeing, scuba diving, hiking, learning new languages, and meeting new people. 

 


Escape the Philly Airport to Tinicum

By Alan M. Murray,
Uncharted Staff

A Great Blue Heron hunts for its next meal in marshland at the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum, in Tinicum, Pa. (© 2014 Alan M. Murray/Uncharted)

A Great Blue Heron hunts for its next meal in marshland at the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum, in Tinicum, Pa. (© 2014 Alan M. Murray/Uncharted)

I feel for anyone who has ever been stuck in an airport. Few things are worse than coming off an already long flight to find you aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. Scrunched for several hours in the coach section, my legs wobbly as half-melted rubber and my joints stiff as rusted hinges, the last thing I want to hear when I finally get off that plane is that my connection is delayed.

The thought of staying another minute in the airport, when a tropical storm is being waged in my stomach, the combination of eating too many airline pretzels and the aftereffects of turbulence, is just unbearable.

And there’s always the fear of becoming part of the terminal. Once I was stranded in the Columbus International Airport at a ridiculously early hour in the morning. I’m pretty sure I was mistaken for a modern art sculpture as I slept near the baggage claim while cleaning staff waxed and buffed the floor around me, no doubt leaving behind a chalk line of my body stretched out on the frigid floor.

Since I live in the Philadelphia, Pa. area, I can’t count how many times I’ve missed flights or have had friends visiting get stuck at the Philadelphia International Airport, infamous for long lines and frequent delays.

So, for anyone out there who one day gets stuck in the Philly Airport, I recently found a new place that may make your stay at the airport a little more enjoyable, and it’s only a 10-minute drive from the airport.

The John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge in Tinicum, Pa. is a great place for hiking and is home to a variety of wildlife. Volunteers at the visitor center are extremely friendly. I only went in to look around for a few minutes and thought maybe I’d pick up a map. I was surprised when Lynn Roman and Karyl Weber, both volunteers at the refuge, offered to take me on a hiking tour of the area.

We had only hiked for a few minutes when we saw a Great Blue Heron perched atop a birdhouse overlooking the pond. Then Karyl spotted something else with her binoculars. Some distance from the path, a raccoon slept in the upper part of a tree. Even with the aid of binoculars, it was almost invisible as it rested comfortably camouflaged in a clump of branches.

A jet is seen from taking off from the Philadelphia International Airport as it flies over the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum, only a ten-minute drive from the airport.

A jet is seen taking off from the Philadelphia International Airport as it flies over the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum, in Tinicum, Pa. The refuge is only a ten-minute drive from the airport. 

Karyl then turned to another group of trees close to where we were standing.  She raised her binoculars and spotted a Great Horned Owl, its brown feathers blending so well into the tree’s trunk and hidden by an array of branches and leaves, that Lynn had to set up a spotting scope, provided by the refuge, so we could get a better look. It twisted its head and peeked around the trunk and disappeared again, leaving only a few feathers sticking out from behind the tree that could easily have been mistaken for twigs. As hikers passed by, Lynn invited them to take a look through the scope.

We continued hiking, this time along some paths leading into marshland where we saw another Great Blue Heron stalking its prey under the setting sun. In the distance, some American Bald Eagles soar above their nesting spot near Interstate Highway 95. We see sparrows, seagulls, woodpeckers and ducks. There is so much wildlife in just a short walk that it’s easy to forget just how close we are to the airport. Only the occasional jet taking off or landing in the distant horizon with occasional glimpses of the Philadelphia skyline peeking over the trees, reminds us of how close we are to urban life.

Alan Murray is Uncharted’s President and one of its co-founders. To learn more about Uncharted and the new online exploration community we are building, sign up and we’ll let you know when it’s ready. Photos of Alan’s work can be purchased at our shop


Hiking Instead of Driving

By Alan M. Murray,
Uncharted Staff

An American Bald Eagle perches atop a tree near the shore of the Delaware River in Delaware City, De. (© 2013 Alan Murray/Uncharted)

An American Bald Eagle perches atop a tree near the shore of the Delaware River in Delaware City, De. (© 2013 Alan Murray/Uncharted)

I recently walked across an entire state.

There is something intriguing about walking across a state that you usually drive through on your way to somewhere else. Other than the usual welcome sign at the state line, it’s hard to see anything from the view of my car window as I drive on Interstate Highway 95, that clearly distinguishes Delaware from nearby Pennsylvania, Maryland and New Jersey. The drive is so quick that you can pass right through without even realizing it.

Over the past few weeks I have traveled through 19 different states looking for interesting places, people and events to write about and photograph in preparation for the completion of Uncharted’s new online exploration community. So when I heard about the Wilmington Trail Club’s annual Hike Across Delaware, I thought it would be a great chance to explore a state much closer to home.

The event, held each year in November, begins at Battery Park in Delaware City near the Delaware River, just across from New Jersey, where hikers board buses for a short ride to the Maryland-Delaware state line near Chesapeake City, Md. They then walk 14 miles (22.4 kilometers) all the way back to Battery Park.

I do a lot of hiking for Uncharted. Once I hiked for several hours at night in sub-zero temperatures on snow-covered trails in the Rocky Mountains for a story. I have spent considerable time exploring all kinds of trails, caves and forests, each time lugging camera equipment and other supplies most hikers don’t ordinarily have to deal with. It’s always tempting to leave some of it behind.

Uncharted's Alan Murray hikes under along the C&D Canal as he walks across Delaware. (© 2013 Uncharted)

Uncharted’s Alan Murray hikes along the C&D Canal as he walks across Delaware. (© 2013 Uncharted)

On my way to Delaware City at a ridiculously early hour of the morning, I keep telling myself that carrying my equipment across a mostly flat state wouldn’t be so bad. It’s usually in those early hours that I’m at my weakest, when the idea of leaving some equipment behind or taking a shortcut is most tempting. But by the time I reach Delaware City I’m ready to hike across the state carrying two cameras, three lenses, battery packs, a flash, lunch and some other supplies.

As the buses drive away, 250 hikers begin the journey from the Maryland-Delaware state line all the way back to Battery Park. At first, everyone is packed together with hardly any room to move, but soon the group splinters into smaller pieces moving at varied paces until they are so far apart that you almost feel as though you have the whole trail to yourself.

I don’t get very far before I’m reminded of the rewards for hauling my gear and making the complete journey on foot. Most of the trail follows the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal which is not only a unique setting for a hike, but is also a great place for boating, fishing and viewing waterfowl. I hike for several miles passing under the occasional highway bridge some several hundred feet above, where travelers drive unaware of the trail below.

They’re missing out. Autumn foliage, the transformation from green to hues of yellow, orange and red reflects in the canal as Wooly Bear Caterpillars, with matching orange and black coats, inch across the trail, the shadows of hikers’s feet threatening to squash them into the ground.

By the time I reach the halfway point, I’m feeling the weight of those cameras, their straps digging into my shoulders. My shoes feel like they’re filled with cement and each step seems heavier than the one before.

But it’s all worth it. A formation of more than a dozen hawks appear overhead soaring in circular patterns in search of their next meal. That extra lens suddenly seems lighter as I raise it upward to capture the moment.

Eventually, our course takes us away from the canal into wetland trails for the final stretch of the hike, passing through some residential backyards into Delaware City and finally back to Battery Park. As I walk toward the finish at the shore of the Delaware River, a hiker notices my cameras and tells me that there is an American Bald Eagle on a tree not far from where I stand. I hurry onto a nearby dock just in time to catch it proudly perched on a branch moments before it flies away.

I’ve been to Delaware many times, hurriedly driving from one side to the other on my way to somewhere else. I could drive back and forth all day and never really see anything, but in five hours I walked across it and discovered Delaware for the very first time.

Alan Murray is Uncharted’s President and one of its co-founders. To learn more about Uncharted, sign up today and we’ll let you know when our new online exploration community is ready. 

 


Uncharted 2014 Calendar

coverrevisedA new year is coming soon and we just finished making our first-ever Uncharted calendar!  Our team talked about how it would be great to have something we could hang on our wall or give to our family and friends that would be a great conversation starter and visually remind us each day of how great it is to go out and explore the world.

A calendar seemed like a great option, so we ran with the idea and now we’re excited to start taking orders and sending these out.  It features previews of future Uncharted stories and some of our favorite scenes from memorable journeys, as well as a photo of one of Uncharted’s explorers, Lisa Dickson, exploring a waterfall in a canyon near her home. You can easily order your copy online and get it in time for the holidays. Place your order on or before November 21 and have it in time for Christmas.


Driving and Demons in Wyoming

By Alan Murray,
Uncharted Staff

The sun sets over Medicine Bow National Park in southeastern Wyoming. (© 2013 Alan M. Murray/Uncharted)

The sun sets over Medicine Bow National Park in southeastern Wyoming. (© 2013 Alan M. Murray/Uncharted)

There is a demon in Wyoming. It lives somewhere between Cheyenne and Laramie. It broods in the air over Interstate Highway 80 around 8000 feet above sea level. They say all kinds of things happen to cars along that road. Steep mountainous terrain, freezing temperatures and fierce winds strain engines, exhaust gas tanks and oppose passage to more hospitable roads.

It was there, on a cold September day that threatened snow, in the place where cell phones go dark, just before the small town of Buford, population of one, that my car met that demon and died.

I was almost halfway through a trek across 19 states when without warning it lost power while climbing a mountain pass. I crawled at 20 mph on the shoulder of the road, my four-way flashers frantically blinking in distress, as traffic swarmed by at high velocities.

I drove at this embarrassing pace for nearly half an hour when help arrived – at least that’s what I thought. Another car pulled off the road just ahead. Relieved, I exited the vehicle just as the other driver shouted, “I just ran out of gas. Can you give me a lift to the nearest station?”  I moved my supplies out of the front passenger seat to make room for another stranded motorist and we continued crawling up the mountainside.

Two or three miles later we arrived at the only gas station in Buford.  The station manager, accustomed to motorists in distress, wrote from memory the number for the nearest towing service.

The tow truck came and I parted with my gas-searching hitchhiker. For over 20 miles as we headed toward Laramie, the tow truck driver recounted tales of the demise of other cars he had rescued on that stretch of highway – victims of breakdowns, accidents and severe weather. He talked of terrible whiteout conditions, snow, freezing temperatures and his narrow escapes from these menaces, reminding me that snow was in the forecast already in September.

It was Saturday. When my car finally arrived at the dealership, it was closed.  I was stuck in southeastern Wyoming for the weekend.

My next stop was supposed to be Arches National Park in southern Utah, where I had planned to camp for a couple of days and work on some projects for Uncharted’s online exploration community now under development. Instead, I rented a room and waited.

The following Monday I paced back and forth outside the dealership anxiously awaiting the verdict, hoping it would be a simple fix. It was anything but simple. There was no telling how long it would take to fix my car – if it could be fixed at all.

I wasn’t ready to give up. I had traveled almost 2000 miles and I wasn’t going to let this mechanical nightmare keep me cooped up in a stuffy hotel. I had to find some way of turning this frustrating situation into something good. I rented a car and ventured into Medicine Bow National Forest just west of Laramie. The road climbed higher and higher until it turned to dirt. The weather was clear as the sun began its descent, creating  canvases of spectacular cloud formations and patterns of light perfect for photography. Images of this scene are available at Uncharted’s new Etsy Shop, another way we bring our adventures (even the ones where things go wrong) into your home or office with prints and gallery wrapped canvases. While admittedly I was in a frustrating situation, had my car not broken down, I would have hastily passed through Wyoming to my next destination without ever discovering the many spectacular scenes and unique stories it offers to those willing to get off the interstate and explore.

The next day, with my car still on life support, I resolved to get back on schedule and complete my journey. Since by then the national parks were closed, I abandoned my plans for southern Utah and headed to my next stop near Salt Lake City.

From that point on, my car and I parted ways. From Utah I took my rental back through Wyoming, to Colorado, through Kansas to Missouri, to Illinois, through Kentucky, to Tennessee, into the Carolinas, up to Virginia, then West Virginia, through Maryland and back home to Pennsylvania.

My car went by some other route, hauled by a shipping service. The demon had one more trick to play, however. The truck hauling my car also broke down, delaying its return by a few days. It’s now on life support at a local shop.

So, if you’re traveling across the country and venture through Wyoming, beware of the demon that lives between Cheyenne and Laramie, somewhere near Buford, population of one, with one gas station.

Alan Murray is Uncharted’s President and one of its co-founders. He just finished a tour of 19 states as we prepare for the début of Uncharted’s new online exploration community. To learn more, sign up and we’ll let you know when it’s ready. 


National Park Alternatives During Government Shutdown

By Alan Murray,
Uncharted Staff

A coyote follows a bison as it walks on the shores of the Great Salt Lake at Antelope Island State Park near Syracuse, Utah. (© 2013 Alan M. Murray/Uncharted)

A coyote follows a bison as it walks on the shores of the Great Salt Lake at Antelope Island State Park near Syracuse, Utah. (© 2013 Alan M. Murray/Uncharted)

One of the things I wanted to do on my month-long trek across the United States was visit some national parks. Top on my list was Arches National Park in southern Utah.

While I lived and worked in Utah for over ten years, somehow I never managed to visit this picturesque national park with its iconic 65-foot tall freestanding natural arch near Moab.

I naturally found plenty of lesser known places to explore throughout the state, but before I knew it I had moved away without ever having experienced life at this spectacular place featured on Utah’s license plates and visited by travelers from around the world.

It’s ironic that I would now venture over 2000 miles from home to visit a place that was once only a four-hour drive from where I lived.

I planned to be at Arches for two days of camping by Sept. 30.

A car breakdown in Wyoming (another story for another time) delayed my arrival and the next day the United States closed its national parks in response to a government shutdown.

It’s important to mention that while the closure of national parks is an inconvenience to travelers like myself, that there are far more serious consequences from the government shutdown that have affected people’s health care, income and employment, including some of Uncharted’s own. Our thoughts go with all those who are affected adversely by this difficult situation. We hope it will soon be resolved.

But, if you find yourself in a situation where the closure of a national park is affecting your travel plans and you’re not brave enough to sneak in, you might consider some really cool state parks. Utah’s governor recently requested that its state parks honor National Park Service passes during the federal government shutdown. The passes are valid for day-use only. Utah has also published a very helpful travel advisory with plenty of state-run alternatives to closed national parks.

Since I was in Utah during the first part of the shutdown, I decided to visit a place I once frequented while working as a newspaper photographer but had never really had time to thoroughly explore.

Antelope Island State Park on Antelope Island in the Great Salt Lake is open year-round and offers camping, biking, boating and mountain biking. It’s also a great place to view wildlife including a herd of over 500 bison, some Pronghorn antelope, coyotes, badgers, bobcats, hawks and falcons.

After several hours exploring the island, I saw a bison walking slowly across a dry patch of the Great Salt Lake normally covered by water. A few moments later, a scrawny coyote creeps out from behind some brush and stealthily trails the bison. Something else startles it and it runs back into hiding.

It’s not a national park, but Antelope Island State Park is open and it’s a great alternative to the many national parks now closed.

 Alan Murray is Uncharted’s President and one of it’s co-founders who still hasn’t been to Arches National Park. To learn more about Uncharted and the new online exploration community we are building, sign up and we’ll let you know when it’s ready so you can share about your own adventures. 


Exploring Wisconsin Cheese

By Alan M. Murray,
Uncharted Staff

Uncharted's Alan Murray stands outside the Wisconsin Cheese & Wine Chalet in Edgerton, Wi. (© 2013 Alan M. Murray/Uncharted)

Uncharted’s Alan Murray stands outside the Wisconsin Cheese & Wine Chalet in Edgerton, Wi. (© 2013 Alan M. Murray/Uncharted)

I’ve never seen so much cheese. Over a week ago I began a month-long road trip from Pennsylvania to the western United States. My trip has taken me to Lake Erie through Ohio, to Michigan and then to northern Illinois, to Iowa, through Nebraska and now Wyoming. While in Illinois I was so close to Wisconsin that I just had to divert from my planned course to see what all this talk of cheese is about.

Wisconsin’s welcome center is near the state line in Beloit just off Interstate 90. They have tons of useful maps and brochures along with knowledgeable staff ready to point out  interesting facts and locations that someone passing through on the interstate might otherwise miss.

One of the first things they proudly handed me was a map showing 161 locations throughout the state all related in some way to cheese. Since Wisconsin dairies produce over 600 varieties of cheese and their dairy farms average 100 cows per farm, most of which are family owned, I guess having a map of cheese locations is useful.

With my new map, I set out in search of places where I could taste some cheese. As it turns out I didn’t really need the map. I hadn’t even driven 30 minutes north where I saw a huge sign towering over a service station with the word “CHEESE” prominently displayed over bright yellow at the top of the sign.

You can get this map showing 161 points of interest about cheese at the Wisconsin Welcome Center in Benoit. (© 2013 Alan M. Murray/Uncharted)

You can get this map showing 161 points of interest about cheese at the Wisconsin Welcome Center in Benoit. (© 2013 Alan M. Murray/Uncharted)

The Wisconsin Cheese & Wine Chalet sells just about any kind of cheese you can imagine –– Garlic Brick, Veggie Cheddar, Cajun Colby, 8-year Cheddar, 3-year Cheddar, 2-Year Cheddar, Tomato Basil Farmers, Caraway Havarti and much more. There are blocks of cheese, cheese curds, slices and spreads.

In just a few minutes I went through about 20 toothpicks savoring only a half-dozen different cheeses. I now understand why people miss the cheese when they move away from here.

Just 50 miles west of Beloit is Monroe, known as the Swiss Cheese Capital of the United States, where I visited the Alp and Dell Cheese Store. Connected to the Roth Kase Cheese Factory, those visiting the store can also tour the factory and view a short video on making cheese. There are also plenty of samples to try.

Since I arrived in the early afternoon and most of the work happens in the morning, there were no scheduled tours. But I was lucky. Some workers were finishing up one last batch and they let me go back to a small viewing area where I could see them in action and later watch the video.

It’s also not surprising that a state that claims to have as many cows as school children would have plenty of cheese-themed restaurants –– like Baumgartner Cheese Store and Tavern. Open since 1931 and specializing in cheese sandwiches, it’s one of the oldest cheese stores in Wisconsin. Since I already had my fill of cheese at the last two stops, I ordered a smoked brat instead – covered in cheese. If you can take your mind off eating for a moment and look up, you’ll see clusters of dollar bills pinned to the ceiling. Donated by customers, the bills are taken down at the end of each year and given to charity.

And tasting cheese isn’t all there is to do with cheese in Wisconsin. You can also view a 300-pound hanging Wisconsin Provolone at the Tenuta’s Delicatessen and tour the Mars Cheese Castle in Kenosha.

 Alan Murray is Uncharted’s president. When Uncharted’s new online community of explorers is ready you can help Alan by visiting Wisconsin and sharing about your adventures tasting cheese. Sign up and we’ll let you know when it’s ready.


Stalking Egrets and Kayaking Canals

By Alan M. Murray,
Uncharted Staff

A Great Egret holds a small fish along the Delaware Canal at Delaware Canal State Park in Yardley, Pa. (© 2013 Alan M. Murray/Uncharted)

A Great Egret holds a small fish along the Delaware Canal at Delaware Canal State Park in Yardley, Pa. (© 2013 Alan M. Murray/Uncharted)

I have always wanted to try kayaking. As an experienced canoeist, I often cross paths with kayakers while exploring wetlands, marshes and lakes, each time secretly wishing I could trade my clunkier canoe for their much swifter, more maneuverable kayak. Almost every time I go canoeing, I think, “I should rent a kayak next time,” but I just never got around to it – until now.

Last weekend I found a kayaking activity at Delaware Canal State Park in Yardley, Pa., just one hour from my home near Philadelphia. The activity, sponsored by the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), provides brief instruction for beginners and takes them on a guided trip along the Delaware Canal. For a $10 donation, the department provides kayaks, life vests and paddles. It’s a great opportunity to try out a kayak and at the same time explore a place full of wildlife and beautiful scenery.

The park follows the canal, a manmade navigation channel constructed in the 1800s that parallels the Delaware River on the Pennsylvania side. This gives the park an odd shape as it is about 60 miles long, but only 10 feet wide in some places.

Most of our group had never kayaked. Sarah Berg, an environmental education specialist with the department, teaches us how to get in and out of our kayaks without tipping them and shows us how to use the double-bladed paddle.

Uncharted's President and co-founder kayaks on the Delaware Canal in Yardley, Pa. (© 2013 Alan M. Murray/Uncharted)

Alan Murray, Uncharted’s President and co-founder kayaks on the Delaware Canal in Yardley, Pa. (© 2013 Alan M. Murray/Uncharted)

A few minutes later we’re floating down the canal, weaving in and out of aquatic plant life, trees and narrow streams. A Great Blue Heron, camouflaged in the upper branches of a tree, peers quietly down as we pass. Another stands behind some brush nearby. Further down the canal, a fox patiently waits in a statue-like stance for us to pass.

Two miles later we’re back where we started. While loading kayaks onto the trailer, someone turns around to see a Great Egret walking along the shore. I grab my camera and hurriedly switch to my longest lens, a 300mm. I tiptoe toward it thinking I’ll probably be lucky if I get even one shot off before it flies away.

I slowly raise my camera, focus, and snap the first photo. To my surprise, it doesn’t even seem to notice me and continues walking toward me along the shore, intently focused on catching its next meal. I keep shooting.

The egret is now less than ten feet away. I’m starting to feel cramped and wondering if I chose the wrong lens since I keep having to walk backwards to fit the bird in the frame.

It stretches its long neck down just above the water and pauses. I hold my breath and wait. In one swift motion, it snatches a small fish and in an instant gobbles it up. It ruffles its feathers in satisfaction and fearlessly continues walking towards me as I walk backwards taking photos and trying not to trip over myself. One would wonder who is afraid of whom.

Ironically, it was a small leashed dog out for an evening walk – you know, the kind with the annoying squeaky bark – that finally scared it away.  The owner apologized for scaring the bird, but I’d already gotten some great shots.

For me, Delaware Canal State Park is not some far off place. I made the drive in an hour and the kayak trip in just under two with plenty of time to spare for dinner. While I love venturing to distant remote locations, it’s nice to know that with a little exploration we can find cool things to see and experience in our own backyards.

Alan Murray is Uncharted’s President and one of its co-founders. He likes snowshoes and scuba diving, and despite making fun of small dogs in this post, he likes them too. If you would like to learn more about Uncharted, sign up and we’ll notify you when our new online club for explorers is ready and keep you posted on our latest adventures, workshops and other cool products. If you would like Alan to apologize to your small dog, feel free to comment below.


Diving into Fears

By Alan Murray,
Uncharted Staff

Uncharted's President and founder dives at Dutch Springs near Bethlehem, Pa. (© 2013 Alan M. Murray/Uncharted)

Uncharted’s President and founder dives at Dutch Springs near Bethlehem, Pa.  “One reason I keep diving is because I think it’s important to take on new challenges outside my personal comfort zone. The lessons I learn have helped me gain greater self-confidence and have enhanced my work for Uncharted,” Murray said. (© 2013 Alan M. Murray/Uncharted)

Uncharted is about exploration. One of the reasons we founded the company is because we love exploring the world and sharing our adventures with others. That’s the idea behind the new online exploration community we are developing. Sometimes our explorations take us far from home, while other times we make discoveries in our own backyards. But it’s those discoveries we make within ourselves that I have found are the most rewarding. It could be finding a hidden talent, learning a new skill, taking on a challenging task, or, in my case, overcoming a personal fear.

I’m afraid of scuba diving. I’m not exactly sure what it is that makes me nervous about diving. I like swimming and enjoy all kinds of water sports, but for some reason I get nervous when it comes time to go below.

I’ve been a certified open water diver for over two years. After several practice sessions in a local swimming pool, a written final exam and four open water dives in two different locations, I completed Diver Level 2 certification. But my fears about diving didn’t suddenly disappear when the certification card arrived in the mail. Each time I dive, I still feel a little anxious.

Last weekend I went to Dutch Springs, a recreation area and aqua park near Bethlehem, Pa. that offers scuba diving, camping and boating. It reminds me of a life-size freshwater aquarium filled with fish, some dive platforms and a variety of submerged vehicles, aircraft and other decorative objects for divers to explore.

A diver swims near the surface of Dutch Spring in Bethlehem, Pa. The former quarry is now a recreational area and aqua park for diving, camping and boating. (© 2013 Alan M. Murray/Uncharted)

A diver swims near the surface of Dutch Springs in Bethlehem, Pa. The former quarry is now a recreational area and aqua park for diving, camping and boating. (© 2013 Alan M. Murray/Uncharted)

One reason I keep diving is that I think it’s important to take on new challenges outside my personal comfort zone. The lessons I learn have helped me gain greater self-confidence and have enhanced my work for Uncharted.

I also hate having limits on where I can go. A large part of being a journalist is putting yourself in the right place at the right time to capture moments that tell compelling stories, either with a camera, audio or through the written word. It’s hard to take photos or write about underwater locations if you can’t hang out underwater longer than the amount of time you can hold your breath.

I have two goals each time I dive – improve my diving skills and become a better underwater photographer. I have a lot to learn about diving. It takes practice and concentration. Depending on the water temperature, you’re often wearing a very constrictive wetsuit, hood and gloves, to say nothing of the upwards of 20 pounds strung around your weight belt, your buoyancy control device (BCD) and your regulator. You have to watch the level of air in your tank, manage buoyancy, keep track of where you are, make sure you don’t collide with other divers and see that your diving buddy is safe. Taking photos is just one more thing that can distract from performing the many skills needed for a successful and safe dive.

Because of my inexperience as a diver, my photography usually suffers. I’ve returned from many of my dives disappointed in my photographs. On several occasions, I’ve come back without any usable images.

Uncharted's Alan Murray dives at Dutch Springs near Bethlehem, Pa. This image was taken with a GoPro Hero 3 Black edition. (© 2013 Alan M. Murray/Uncharted)

Uncharted’s Alan Murray dives at Dutch Springs near Bethlehem, Pa. This image was taken with a GoPro Hero 3 Black edition. (© 2013 Alan M. Murray/Uncharted)

Things I would normally do instinctively while taking photos above the water are more difficult below. It’s more challenging to keep the camera steady while floating and dealing with currents. Perspectives underwater are also distorted, making objects appear closer than they really are.  And I’m still getting used to maneuvering myself to the right place at the right time for capturing an image. While I have demonstrated repeatedly the ability to do these commonplace things above the water, my diving skills sometimes hold me back from getting an image that would ordinarily be easier to capture on the surface.

I usually dive with my friend Steve, an experienced professional diver and engineer who dives under difficult conditions for the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). We start slow at a depth of 20 feet near some dive platforms used for training students. We review some basic skills and soon venture a little deeper, exploring a submerged fire truck.

At this point, I’m comfortable enough with the dive to switch my camera on and begin taking photos. Out of all the dives I’ve been on, this one is the first time where I feel completely comfortable focusing on some photography. While I clearly have room for improvement, I manage to come back with some images that convey how it feels to explore underwater locations. As my diving skills improve, my underwater photography seems to follow.

 Alan Murray is the President and a co-founder of Uncharted. He likes snowshoeing and scuba diving. To learn about Alan or to see more of his photography, check out his personal photo website. If you have questions for Alan, feel free to comment below.


Night Photography at French Creek State Park

By Alan Murray,
Uncharted Staff

Stars peek through patches of cloud over French Creek State Park near Elverson, Pa. This exposure was taken with a Nikon D800 at ISO 1000 with a 24mm lens at f/2.8 for 20 seconds. (© 2013 Alan Murray/Uncharted)

Stars peek through patches of clouds over French Creek State Park near Elverson, Pa. This exposure was taken with a Nikon D800 at ISO 1000 with a 24mm lens at f/2.8 for 20 seconds. Click on the image to view larger. (© 2013 Alan Murray/Uncharted)

Things don’t always go the way I plan. This is especially true when it comes to photography. I was reminded of that this week as I kicked off a long-term project that includes photographing night skies for Uncharted. The idea is to document different astronomical events taking place at various locations around the world, and show how different cultures perceive and interact with the cosmos. It’s a great excuse for taking a break from web programming, project managing, and other forms of tedious office work that have kept me inside more than a person who works at Uncharted should be required to do.

It’s going to be some time before I finish, but I’ll be sharing how things are going, including some occasional glimpses of images I collect along my travels. I’ll also share some helpful tips for taking your own photos.

This week I decided to explore French Creek State Park near Elverson, Pa. Once an industrial complex for the United States, the park is the largest contiguous block of forest between Washington D.C. and New York City, offering a variety of activities that include hiking, fishing, camping and biking.

Even though I grew up only 50 miles away, I had never been there and was hoping it might provide a good backdrop for portions of my project. I was also hoping to capture some glimpses of the Perseids meteor shower which peaked over the weekend.

I knew a couple factors would affect how my images turned out. The Philadelphia area is no friend to dark skies, and even though French Creek is more than 50 miles from there, its proximity to smaller cities such as Reading and Pottstown could pose some challenges, especially for capturing glimpses of meteor showers.

I confirmed my suspicions with the Dark Sky Finder, a helpful online tool that maps light pollution levels around the world. Areas highlighted in black, blue and green are more ideal for stargazing, while the ambient light emanating from nearby cities limits visibility in yellow, orange, red and white zones.

French Creek was in the orange.

The weather forecast was ambiguous, promising anything from thunderstorms to clear conditions. This, coupled with a typically humid and hazy climate, threatened to make things even more difficult than usual.

I scouted some locations and planned the night. Visibility was good and the weather looked like it was going to cooperate. I set up camp, ate dinner, and prepared my gear for the evening.

For this shoot, I used two cameras, a Nikon D800 and a Nikon D700. Both cameras, mounted on tripods, were focused on different scenes to increase the likelihood of capturing more meteors.  I set the built-in intervalometer in both cameras to take 20-second exposures every 21 seconds.  This is helpful because you can increase your chances of having the shutter open when an unexpected meteor passes, and it frees you up to take other photos, take a nap or grab an evening snack. If your camera doesn’t have one, there are a variety of wired intervalometers compatible with different brands and models. To avoid camera shake, I also used a cable release to trigger the camera.

I won’t go into too much more detail about exposures and camera settings except to say that I set my ISO at 1000 and used a 24mm lens at f/2.8. I also used a white balance in the area of 3800 Kelvin. I suggest experimenting with different ISO, white balance and exposure settings until you find what works best. The more mistakes you make, the more you learn, and when we learn from our mistakes we begin taking better photos more consistently.

I was planning on shooting from about 11 p.m. until sunrise, but at 2 a.m. clouds slowly smothered my view. They were followed by a storm that lasted until morning. This reminded me of a couple months earlier when clouds covered my view while photographing the supermoon at Valley Forge National Historic Park. 

I snapped this photo while scouting out locations for my night photography. It's important not to lose site of other opportunities even though your primary objective might be something completely different. (© 2013 Alan M. Murray/Uncharted)

I snapped this photo at Scotts Run Lake while scouting out locations for my night photography. It’s important not to lose sight of other opportunities even though your primary objective might be something completely different. (© 2013 Alan M. Murray/Uncharted)

I’ve learned on a number of occasions that when things don’t quite work out the way you expect, that there are often opportunities to use the very things keeping you from getting the shot you want (in this case clouds and light pollution) to capture an improvised alternative shot. This philosophy is easily adaptable to just about anything else that I do at Uncharted or in life.

Even though the clouds obstructed the meteors I was trying to capture, they provided a unique effect as they moved across the sky over those 20-second exposures. This, combined with light pollution from nearby cities somehow worked to my advantage and gave the scene a more colorful and layered look. Earlier, as I scouted locations for my night shots, I found a nice scene of a fisher at Scotts Run Lake during sunset. While I hadn’t planned on these alternative shots, being open to other options helped me see moments I otherwise might have passed over.

If there is anything I haven’t covered here or you have more questions, post a comment below and I’ll do my best to help out. If you’re looking for more hands-on learning, you can sign up for my travel photography course. 

Alan Murray is the President and a co-founder of Uncharted. He likes scuba diving and snowshoeing. When Alan was five, he wanted to be an astronaut. If you’d like to learn more about Alan or view samples of his photography, check out his personal photo site. 

 


First Cameras and Learning Travel Photography

By Alan Murray,
Uncharted Staff

My very first camera was a Canon AT-1. It survived 11 years of pounding, dropping and water damage before I finally decided to upgrade my equipment. (© 2013 Alan M. Murray/Uncharted)

My very first camera was a Canon AT-1. It survived 11 years of pounding, dropping and water damage before I finally decided to upgrade my equipment. (© 2013 Alan M. Murray/Uncharted)

I still have my very first camera. It hangs on my office door, a reminder of when cameras didn’t automatically focus, set exposure and advance frames. Covered with a thin layer of dust, its once shiny metallic body is now stained with rust and engraved with scratches. There are smudges on the lens and its battery door is ajar, exposing an old six-volt lithium that once powered the camera’s only electronic function – the light meter.

That was the camera I used in high school while working for the school paper. It was the camera I used when I went to college. It was the camera I used at my first job.

With it I documented the life of Catholic Cistercian monks in a small western town. I used it to cover professional and collegiate sports, accidents, fires and severe storms. And despite the absence of sophisticated electronics and automatic functions, I somehow won several state and national awards with it.

Eventually, I reached a point in my photography where I needed to upgrade my equipment, but the things I learned using that very first camera still help me today as I use the latest digital photographic technology to document the world’s people, cultures and hidden places for Uncharted.

Uncharted's Alan Murray works on a photo shoot at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Northwestern Utah. (© 2013 Alan M. Murray/Uncharted)

Uncharted’s Alan Murray works on a photo shoot at the Bonneville Salt Flats in northwestern Utah. (© 2013 Andrew E. Clark/Uncharted)

I love photography and I love exploring the world, so it’s great when I get a chance to bring my two passions together. That’s why I’m excited to offer personalized travel photography instruction through Uncharted. If you’re a beginner with your very first digital camera, I can help you figure it out. If you’re an advanced amateur or somewhere in between, I can help you polish your skills. If you need help picking out your first camera, I can give you some advice.

To get started, sign up for a free online consultation. I’ll talk with you about your personal goals and skill level and come up with a training plan just for you or your group. I’ll also keep you informed about upcoming photo workshops and other learning opportunities in your area. Speaking of other opportunities, our resident geographer and orienteering athlete is offering instruction in both land navigation and map reading. These are helpful skills for avoiding getting lost on your way to capture a cool photo.

At Uncharted, we love exploring the world and sharing our adventures with everyone. We’re excited to offer these learning opportunities and hope they will be helpful as you create your own adventures.

Alan Murray is President and a co-founder of Uncharted. He likes scuba diving and snowshoeing. He is fluent in Spanish and Portuguese and has lived and traveled extensively in South and Central America. Alan resides in the Philadelphia, Pa. area. To learn more about Alan and see some of his photography, take a look at his personal photography site


National Trail Day Top Ten – 2013

GD CRATERS 14 8-18-07

By GeoJoe,
Uncharted Staff

This Saturday the American Hiking Society and thousands of people across the United States at hundreds of events celebrate National Trail Day, the nation’s largest annual celebration of trails. It is a time to enjoy and show your appreciation for trails by doing something to make them better for everybody. Typical activities include hikes, biking and horseback rides, paddling trips, birdwatching, geocaching, gear demonstrations, stewardship projects and more.

National Trail Day is an Uncharted day. Our goal at Uncharted is to help you make your own discoveries, experience new adventures and gain new skills that empower your journeys. We hope everyone will join us this Saturday on National Trail Day to visit a favorite or new trail, enjoy it for a while, and do something nice for that trail that you enjoy so much.

You might also consider visiting one of literally hundreds of National Trail Day events being held across the country. In reviewing these events, there are ten that stand out as perfectly suited for an Uncharted explorer at heart:

1.  Trail Reclamation, Bear Mountain State Park, N.Y.  You might recall our earlier blog post where we discussed Uncharted’s drive to empower our audience with the information, tools and skills they need to go where there is no path, leaving a trail for others to follow. Given Uncharted’s commitment to acts of exploration, education and service, awarding the No. 1 spot to the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference’s Trail Reclamation event was an easy choice. Those who come, will work with Trail Builder and Educator, Ama Koenigshof, and the Bear Mountain interns to help build trails on the mountain.

2.  Summer Outdoor Slam, Curt Gowdy State Park, Wyo. This event showcases great things to do outside-hiking, cycling, rock climbing, fishing, archery, kayaking, and more. You’ll be able to try your hand at all these activities. Environmental education, art in the park, and wildlife identification are also offered.  Instruction is lead by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.

3.  Experience the Gem at Your Own Backdoor – the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge, Trenton, Mich. Hosted by the International Wildlife Refuge Alliance at the Humbug Marsh Unit, you can explore these trails and experience the last untouched mile of shoreline on the Detroit River. Two trails are available for use, including one where you will likely see nesting bald eagles soar above the water. Another trail takes you back to an old oak-hickory forest with 300-year-old trees! At noon EST. you can help with a reforestation project in the Refuge Gateway by planting trees from noon to 2 p.m. Plant a native tree, get the GPS coordinate, and watch it grow in the upcoming years. Families are welcome!

4.  XtremeFest of the Blue Ridge, Constitution Park, Waynesboro, Va.  This event will show you the ins and outs of adventure sports like rock climbing, kayaking, mountain biking and hiking with a goal to promote a healthy, active lifestyle. There will be something for everyone–novices included.  The event also includes day product demonstrations and informative classes. You also can test your skills with opportunities to hike, bike, paddle and climb throughout the day.

5.  Geocaching the Boggy Creek Trail, Jimmie Davis State Park, La. Geocachers can enjoy a great family day exploring the Boggy Creek Trail and searching for six newly-placed geocaches. GPS coordinates are available at the park entrance station. The trailhead is located in the boat launch parking lot.

6.  National Trail Day Summer Sampler: Rock Climbing Skills, Crow Hill, Mass. Enjoy a day of climbing at Crow Hill and learning skills for safely moving over steep terrain, brought to you by the Appalachian Mountain Club. Rope-work will be taught and reviewed, climbing skills will be demonstrated and practiced, and you will have an opportunity to complete single pitch rock climbs. E-mail dogmandb@gmail.com for info.

7.  The California Trail Demonstrations, Southfork State Recreation Area, Nev.  Hosted by Nevada State Parks. Meet at the East campground.  Demonstrations will reflect the hardships, hazards and triumphs experienced by families who dared to journey west. Journey back in time and see what life was like for these pioneers who were in search of a better life. Call the park for more information at 775-744-4346.

8.  National Trail Days Low Impact Canoeing, Deerfield & Connecticut Rivers, Mass. Enjoy canoeing and camping trails of water, also known as rivers! Instruction on bow and stern canoe paddling strokes and managing a canoe or kayak in strong currents is available as needed.

9.  First Ever Park Volunteer Event, Powhatan on the James State Park, Va. Come out to help a brand new state park preparing to open later in June 2013. It will be their first ever volunteer work day to help them prepare for their grand opening. Hot Dog Lunch and brief organizational meeting of the Friends of Powhatan State Park at noon EST.

10.  Photo Scavenger Hunt, Groen Park, Chatfield, Minn. Take pictures while hiking on the Lost Creek Hiking Trail. Photos will be submitted to and judged by members of the Bluff Country Hiking Club.

These are just a sampling of great events being held this Saturday on National Trail Day. Chances are high that if you can’t make it to any of the Uncharted Top 10 National Trail Day events, there will still be plenty of others to choose from wherever you are at. Check the National Trail Day event finder for a Trail Day event near you.

We’ll be excited to see how your trail day went. Post a photo of your trail day event on our Facebook page to inspire the rest of us. Happy trails!


Why You Want Map Reading Skills

learning
By GeoJoe,
Uncharted Staff

OK, I admit it.  I love maps.  That’s “Love” with a big capital “L”!  I also admit that I’m a geographer, so that makes me a little geeky, not well understood, and yes, biased.  Now that I’ve cleared that disclaimer up, what you might not know about me is that despite all my training, knowledge, experience, and even despite my fluency with using really geeky and high-tech navigation tools, I still get lost sometimes. From the streets of Beijing, to my own familiar forest I use for orienteering training, to flying an airplane over areas that are very familiar to me on the ground, I still get lost sometimes.  What tool is it that helps prevent these messes from becoming a disaster?  You’ve got it, the mighty map!

Maps are easy to take for granted, but there are so many ways a map can help us in our journeys.  For starters, a map can motivate.  Just looking at a topographic map of Yosemite National Park makes me want to be there, out in that terrain, walking those trails.  I start seeing trails that look like they would be really cool to use, or points of interest on the map that I want to see.  In just a few scans across the map I notice new points of interest that I haven’t heard of before, or I’m reminded of places that other people have recommended.

The same information that would take me hours to absorb reading, only takes seconds with the aid of a map. With maps, at a short glance, I can decipher terrain, distances, and proximities between places of interest.  I see areas I’ve already explored and am drawn into looking at those I haven’t. Try it out yourself.  Take some time to look at a map of a place you’ve always wanted to visit.  I guarantee it will motivate you.

Maps also help us navigate unfamiliar places.  Before I go on a trip to an unfamiliar city I always look at a map.  After landing and passing through airport security, I look for even better maps of the local area. Making this small effort has helped my trips go more smoothly and made my experiences much more interesting. When I find myself in a certain location and realize I have more time to spend than planned, I take a look at the map to see what other interesting places are nearby, and next thing I know I’m at another cool place. Not to mention there are many cities that can be quite complex to navigate, with winding roads, complicated transit systems, and confusing addresses that would make finding points of interest and following verbal or written directions a nightmare for someone without a map.

Guys take note that the better your map reading skills, the less likely you will ever have to stop and ask for directions again!  Gals take note that the better your map reading skills, the easier it will be to explain to your favorite lost guy why you’re right.

That geeky technology I talked about includes one type of gadget I absolutely adore.  The moving map GPS/navigation display.  They’ve become so widely available that you can get them in a rental car for just a few more bucks a day.  These are great tools that make getting from point A to point B a cinch, even for someone who doesn’t know anything about how a GPS works.

The problem is what happens when it breaks. Use these gadgets long enough and you will definitely run into a time when it stops working and you need to rely on a map instead.  For example, last weekend I was using GPS to navigate from my hotel to an orienteering race at Cuyahoga National Park south of Cleveland, Ohio (an awesome place, by the way).  Something went wrong and it took my GPS more than 20 minutes to reacquire lost satellite signals.  I was late and couldn’t wait for the GPS to re-acquire the signal and make sense of its new position.  Thankfully I had a map–not a great map, but good enough to get me to the park.  Once I arrived, I picked up a park map  that gave me the details I needed so I could make it to registration on time.  Between these two maps and my very fast driving (I won’t say how fast), I didn’t miss out on a splendid day of orienteering in the scenic and forested hills of Cuyahoga National Park. This is not the first time I’ve had a GPS fail me, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. Each time, my map reading skills saved the day.  And by the way, those flashy GPS units are now integrating map data into the GPS screen displays more and more, so map reading skills are becoming increasingly important for interpreting what a GPS is displaying.

Maps exist for many purposes.  Topographic maps, subway maps, Google maps, United States Geological Survey (USGS) quads, street maps, geologic maps, park maps, subterranean maps, marine navigation maps, aeronautical maps, and even maps of our universe.  So wherever you want to go, a map can help you get there, help you navigate, help you gain a new perspective about a location, and help you understand important spatial relationships.  But in order for the map to help you, you have to be able to understand how to find it, how to interpret it, and how to use it.

For these reasons and many others, I am excited to announce that I’m now offering Uncharted “Map Reading for Explorers” instruction that can be customized for you and your group to help you meet your specific goals and training needs–online or in person.

For example, if you have an upcoming backpacking trip and want to improve your skills interpreting the terrain and finding good maps for your trip, I can help you acquire map skills specifically useful for that journey.  Or perhaps there’s a trip that you’ve been wanting to take to some far-off city, but you want help with finding and understanding how to read urban street or transportation maps. I can help you with that too.  Or maybe you have a GPS but want to know how to get a track file off of it and onto a map so that you can see where you went.Whatever your map related goals you have, Uncharted is here to help you achieve them.

Offering something like this requires significant time investment, my own expertise, materials, and logistics, so there will be some cost for this training; but we will offer a free introductory consultation session online to help you get started so that I can hear what specific goals you have. We’ll come up with a customized training plan that meets your specific goals and then present it to you with no obligation.  The actual training will be accomplished at reasonable cost, and as always, it will be discounted for all who have joined Uncharted as an Explorer.

I look forward to getting this started.  As Uncharted’s geographer, I feel like I have a tremendous opportunity to help people go places.  Sharing what I’ve learned through my own journeys is something I’m excited to do and one of the reasons I’m so passionate about being involved with Uncharted.  I will also be looking for other opportunities where Uncharted can help people enhance their map reading skills.  For example, next month Uncharted is donating my work time and some resources so I can help a local high school class learn how to use maps and compasses during a nature outing with their teacher.  So whether you’re young or seasoned, a new explorer or an experienced adventurer, Uncharted is here to support you in your journey.